Yesterday, my wife and I visited the yeshiva high school in Maale Hever, where one of our sons will be learning next year. The settlement is located on the edge of the Judean Desert about ten minutes south of Hevron. As we were driving, I remembered back some 30 years ago to my first trip to Israel, how I was blown away by the biblical scenery along this very same road to the City of our Forefathers. The vineyards of Efrata, the terraced landscapes, the holiness shining off the hills, the realization that King David herded his sheep, here, in these very fields, all filled me with the overwhelming understanding, like a bolt of lightning in the darkness, that if I wanted to sincerely embrace a new life of Torah, as Torah was meant to be lived, in all of its freedom, pride, and holy beauty, then Eretz Yisrael was the “Super Bowl” for a serious Jew.
It is impossible to describe the feeling of a visit to Hevron, where we stopped on our way back to Yerushalayim. It’s a little like visiting your mom and dad after a very long absence. This is where our Nation all started. Not in Brooklyn. Not in Los Angeles. Here in Hevron, the history of our Nation begins, in the field of Machpelah, which remains today just as it was when Avraham purchased it. It is impossible to describe the transcendental feeling in the Tomb of the Patriarchs when you recite the Blessing of Avraham at the beginning of the Amidah prayer, and you are standing, trembling with awe and joy, with the realization that Avraham Avinu is here alongside you, with Yitzhak and Yaacov, here, in Hevron, where all prayers gather from all over the world to receive our father Avraham’s blessing before traveling on to Jerusalem, just a short drive down the road.
After praying, I sat with one of my sons and learned the Parsha with him, here in Hevron, where Jewish education all started, feeling that we were a living part of tradition, carrying the mission of the Jewish People forward, educating my son to be a proud Jew in the Land of our forefathers.
This week’s Torah portion of “Bechutotei” states with crystal clear clarity, again and again, that the exile is a curse and a punishment. It equates the exile with a terrible and frightening disease. Its language is brutal and horrific, leaving no room for misunderstanding. Exile from Eretz Yisrael is the worst punishment that can befall the Jewish People.
Given this terrible predicament, the task of Diaspora Jewry was to survive the exile and prepare the wandering and homeless Jewish community for its awaited return to the Land of Israel. The goal of returning to Israel is emphasized in the Torah, and in the visions of our Prophets again and again, more than any other theme. For nearly 2000 years, we prayed and dreamed about returning to Zion. Then something went terribly wrong. When the State of Israel was established, and we finally had the chance to return home to our Land, the vast majority of Jewish communities in the West turned their backs on the opportunity. Instead of wanting to escape the exile, they chose to stay. In defiance of the clear promises of the Torah, the Prophets, and 2000 years of prayers and dreams, in defiance of the clear discernible fact that God was gathering His outcasts back to Zion, and miraculously rebuilding the new State of Israel into one of the superpowers of the world, the Diaspora communities in the West decided to remain where they were, living amongst the gentiles in foreign lands. Instead of rushing to rebuild Israel, and take part in the long-awaited Redemption that was unfolding for everyone to see, they continued to build and strengthen their bastions in golus. After 2000 years of yearning, when the time came to return, they got cold feet. Yes, with their money, they helped a great deal. Out of love for our homeland and concern for the Jews who were rebuilding it, they reach deep into their pockets and gave. They exerted political pressure on Israel’s behalf. But in the matter of coming themselves, by and large, they failed to heed the call and join the hundreds of thousands of secular pioneers, Sefardi Jews, Yemenite Jews, and Holocaust survivors who were returning to Israel, in accord with ancient prophesies, age-long prayers, and the eternal command of the Torah.